After travelling extensively across West Africa and Europe (completing his architecture degree in London and then, a Master of Philosophy in Paris) Michael Elion returned to Cape Town where he has since been creating work as a public artist. Through large scale urban art installations, Michael re-imagines the environment we inhabit infusing what he refers to as a “layer of fantasy” into the everyday experience. Inspired first and foremost by the natural world, Michael’s basic principle is this: to seek beauty in all things.
In the interview below Michael shares more about his colourful journey so far, his involvement in World Design Capital 2014 and his insights on beauty and perception:
Growing up, was there any indication that you would be doing what you are now?
It’s difficult to say because we all have so many different potentialities for development. I became preoccupied with the ideas of truth and beauty while studying architecture at UCT and then at the Architectural Association (AA) in London. The focus of my thinking was that the common thread running through any creative practice, regardless of the output, is that we all revere beauty and relentlessly pursue it. Its the alchemy we all seek and yet beauty doesn’t exist in and of itself, its a construct, a perception happening in our minds. And when it happens it seems to give us a form of elation mixed with inner peace where your being feels aligned and synchronised with the appearance of the outside world. When we perceive a beautiful object, the outside world correlates perfectly with our internal sense of harmony.
Tell us a bit more about your journey so far.
After completing the first part of my architecture degree at UCT I did a solo bicycle trip across West Africa that was a formative period for me. I spent a year with the Dogon tribes in Mali, crossing the Sahara with the Tuareg in Mauritania and finally winding through the High Atlas mountains with the Berbers of Morocco. It was a very introspective period, I was sketching, cycling, making notes, and learning French, but most of all I was alone with my thoughts for almost a year. I remember being deep into the Sahara and being hit by a sand storm that was so thick it blocked out the sunlight completely – sudden darkness from daylight. I could barely push my bicycle forwards – and when it finally subsided it was replaced by a searing heat that is difficult to describe in words. Those moments when you are alone on the planet absorbed by the unfathomable power and beauty of nature remain with you and resonate into your being for a long time. My time in West Africa was moulded by experiences like these.
I eventually crossed from Morocco into Spain and continued into Europe in a panel van. I worked for the architect Massimiliano Fuksas in Rome and completed the second part of my architecture degree at the Architectural Association (AA) in London and worked for Daniel Libeskind (architect) in Berlin. I became interested in philosophy at the AA and particularly with the concepts of beauty & form and the mechanics of visual perception.
After the AA, I moved to Paris and completed a Master of Philosphy (aesthetics) and started working for the French artist, Xavier Veilhan. I worked on laser scans and sculpture designs for him and we collaborated on a short film called Radiator that was screened at The Pompidou Centre. It was a great experience but after six years in Paris, I decided to come back to Cape Town. The fact that I would be able to surf again actually played a small part in my decision! It’s interesting because it was while I was surfing when I was back that I saw a perfectly circular rainbow and subsequently tried to create one as an artwork. That is where my interest with rainbows began and why I’ve been fascinated with them ever since.
As someone who is involved in the field of architecture as well as art, how do these influence one another in your own practise?
Architecture helped me see the world through a bigger lens, to view space itself as an empty canvas. When you view the world in that way you start to see opportunity in everything from a building to a cityscape to a landscape. But in order to execute artworks at those large scales there is a lot of planning and engineering involved and there is less immediacy leading from the creative moment. The freedom that art allows; the lateral mental leaps, and the unconstrained creative impulses that come while painting for example can always remain visceral and pure. Finding a balance between these extreme forms and scales of creative expression and still understanding how to harness raw desire is part of the art form that architecture helps you to cultivate.
Your work indicates a clear fascination with light, as well as the manner in which it can be harnessed or manipulated. Where does this come from?
It was never a conscious decision to formally employ light as a device in my artworks, it was rather a serendipitous realisation about how light can be used as a creative material – its transformative power and reach. The interesting part, in terms of visual perception, is that light is the medium through which any visual artwork is perceived but if you invert the the equation and manipulate light itself using a crystal or water vapour in a certain way, light becomes the object of the perception. And, it happens to perform uniquely and beautifully in and of itself.
Many of your works are urban art installations, finding their place in various cities among the people who inhabit them. Why do you enjoy producing work of this nature?
Experiencing beauty is something that gets lost in our daily fight to survive. The routine pressures of a modern urban existence can be so great that we can forget why we’re alive because everything is moving so quickly. But when we stop for a moment and have the opportunity to experience something beautiful it relocates us with our existence and reminds us of what it is to be human. Discovering something beautiful and sharing it with others somehow makes the effort worthwhile.
Certain projects, such as Spotting Rainbows, Archair and Rainbow have been set up at numerous locations over the years. Are these works created with the purpose of being transferred at a later stage in mind?
The crystals I first installed in Paris in 2009 and the project title was Spotting Rainbows in Paris. The project was dedicated to spring in Paris – a really special time of year there – but I knew then that I had wanted to install them in different cities and that they would resonate slightly differently depending on their location. The rainbows are also specifically made to be installed in different locations and each time they appear in different contexts they elicit a different energy from that place.
Broadly speaking, how would you describe your style or aesthetic?
I’m interested in how and why our minds find things beautiful and my artworks are often tangential investigations of visual perception. Strong forms, powerful geometries and bold colours are what I’m drawn to. I am always looking for the essential characteristics of something, the circle as opposed to the idiosyncratic squiggle – raw energy uncontaminated by expectation or zeitgeist. I need to be fascinated while I work and want to allow others be to be similarly fascinated by the work when its produced.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
The natural world is the greatest source of inspiration for me and I am always looking for ways for my work to integrate with it – whether it’s studying the microstructures of an ant, the colour patterns in rocks or using a mountain itself as a component in an artwork. Generally there’s one basic principle I keep coming back to; to seek beauty in all things and the method for doing that is to keep producing and keep learning.
What are some of the themes that seem to reoccur in your work?
In terms of my public work I’ll always be engaged and interested in large scale projects that transform space and re-imagine the environment we inhabit with the aim of enriching our experience of it. There is a layer of fantasy that can be infused into our world. My paintings and sculptures engage with the perception of beauty and the visual language of how these perceptions happen in our brains. This place we call earth contains all this raw material, natural forces, strange life forms, colours and phenomena – being fascinated by it, using it, playing with it, reinventing it, that is what reoccurs in my work.
You are involved in the official WDC 2014 project, City of Rainbows. Could you tell us more about this and the components that make it up – such as The Secret Love Project?
City of Rainbows (WDC#518) is a city-wide project that transforms the urban landscape in Cape Town with moments of fantasy. It has four components: real rainbows appearing in public places and over streets across the city; thousands of faceted glass crystals hanging from the city’s lamp posts creating flashes of colour in the skyline; pedestrian crossings transformed into colourful crossings; and The Secret Love Project – a social engineering experiment using the heart shape.
The Secret Love Project is an urban artwork, its an exercise and experiment in visual perception and how the visual world can influence our behaviour. It was inspired by the work of Derren Brown (UK mentalist & hypnotist) who has done experiments in public space using signs, symbols and language to orchestrate collective consciousness. The test with The Secret Love Project is to see whether a simple shape that is universally understood, can influence the way an entire city feels. And if it can do that, will it lead to positive thought processes and in turn positive actions. So far the proof is that it can and does.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I have some large sculptural works going up on the Sea Point promenade as part of Art54 – a public arts program that is part of World Design Capital 2014. And I have another WDC2014 project called Art Street underway, where we’re converting an entire street (buildings, road, urban furniture etc) into giant artworks. Art Street (#WDC354) is in Roodehek Street Gardens and is home to The Dogs Bollocks, Deluxe Coffee and it runs into the City Bowl Market.